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International realness

A host of international performances made up this years Tanz im August festival with performers from Argentina to Japan, but it was the American's that came out on top with the most radical contributions.

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Photo by Paula Court

American choreographers dished up the most radical performances in this year’s Tanz im August festival.

HAU 2 is packed: every seat in the house is filled and people are sitting in pairs all the way down the stairs. It’s two hours into the show, and the performers are taking a collective break. They rifle through plastic bags. One gets a purse from under a seat in the audience. Falsies are readjusted. A five o’clock shadow is painted on. No attention is paid to the audience. It goes on forever, but there is no question of whether or not it’s part of the show. Aside from the handful of people who’ve been lost to attrition, the audience is as captivated by this extended quotidian moment as it was by the drag queen ballet that came earlier in the evening.

The piece is called “(M)IMOSA”, the fourth instillation in New York-based choreographer Trajal Harrell’s series Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, one of the highlights of last month’s Tanz im August festival. Ever the brilliant marketer, Harrell framed his five-part performance experiment with a succinct and evocative question: “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?”

If you don’t get the question, don’t worry: it’s packed with two dense New York insider references. The “ball scene in Harlem” refers to the extravagant drag balls, frequented by primarily African American and Latino gay men, which, though they reached their apex in the 1980s, have recently come into the mainstream spotlight with the re-release of the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning (if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out). The early postmoderns at Judson Church, otherwise known as Judson Dance Theatre or Grand Union, revolutionised dance by stripping it down to its essential core: that is, movement. This meant a rejection of proscenium stages, music, and narrative. Those performances where nothing really happens for a long time, all to the sound of bare feet squeaking on wood? You have Judson to thank for that.

However different their approaches, Judson and the balls did share a fundamental concern with “realness,” albeit of different kinds. For Judson, “realness” was something akin to “authenticity”, or perhaps one of those other earnest words that has gone out of fashion, like “truth” or “honesty”. For the balls, “realness” was something more situated in a social reality, more knowing. The word Realness, in the context of the balls, meant, in the strictest sense, passing: i.e. if you walked in the ball as a femme queen, could you make it home on the subway as a woman without getting beat up. In the loftiest sense, realness reformulates the relationship between performance and identity. Rejecting the notion of a true essence, realness says: playing the part is being the part, darling. In the most basic sense, realness also says: so you’d better be fierce.

“(M)IMOSA” certainly is fierce, in large part thanks to the three incredible performers Harrell performs alongside: the French performance duo of François Chaignaud, the Argentine Cecilia Bengolea, and Lisbon-based Marlene Monteiro Freitas (the best Prince impersonator I’ve ever seen, hands down). And “(M)IMOSA” is dealing with realness smartly. Each of the performers offers a club act or two – whether it be a wildly popular Kate Bush rendition, or a black-light/blackface moment – as well as a monologue or two where he or she introduces him/herself as Mimosa Ferrera. Many critics have taken the monologues at face-value as autobiographies of each of the dancers; I’m not so sure. “(M)IMOSA” seems to ask the audience – where is realness situated in this spectrum of the performative? In the confessional monologue? In the outrageous lip-sync? In the interminable costume changes? In Judson? At the balls? Somewhere in-between?

Though Harrell has most vocally situated himself at the intersection of these two traditions, much of the exciting work coming out of New York finds itself there as well. Harrell’s work – as well as two of the three other American offerings at Tanz im August this year – was presented to the international market at a new festival called American Realness. Created in 2009 by Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor, American Realness offers an alternative to more traditional presenting festivals: more gay, more glitter, more pop culture references, but also, more play. This is not to say it’s all good. But it gathers and highlights an exciting new strain in performance.

This strain had its counterpart in another of the festival’s international offerings – most obviously in the Belgian/German/Portugese A Coming Community (link to half-way piece). But there was also a kind of Serbian Realness present in Saša Asentić and Ana Vujanović’s provocative, interactive On Trial Together.

There’s no glitter in On Trial Together (Berlin Episode), but there is role-playing. The Serbian duo have invented a game to address the big ethical-political questions that artists these days rarely touch with a 10-foot pole, questions like, “Is collectivism a historical delusion?” Asentić and Vujanović are that rare breed of truly political artist capable of inventing a form which activates, rather than merely represents, their concerns. The game (one of two in the performance; the audience is split in half) involves a dispute over the ownership of an artist collective. As in all such exercises, the large part of the interest lies in how people play the game – who rises to the occasion, who takes it too seriously, who tries to undermine the thing. In this way the social experiment is doubled – there is the issue of the fictional artist collective, but there is also the issue of the social organization of the game. This, as performance theorists say, is deep play – even when it’s fake, it’s real.

If “realness” represents one pole of the contemporary dance on offer at Tanz im August, the other might be called Choreography (capital C). Which is to say, seamlessness, the body as symbol, movement as a sort of abstract language: what most people think of when they think of “dance”. The problem with much of the Choreography on display at Tanz im August was that it wanted to be about realness, but it didn’t know how to suit its form to its concern.

In A Gesture that is Nothing but a Threat, with an unexplained jungle backdrop behind them, the Lisbon-based Sofia Dias and Vitor Roriz wind their way through a series of homonymic phrases: “open your eyes, open your eyes, open your eyes”, after 10 or so repetitions, becomes, say, “opinionize” (the transformations were too dull actually to note down). This kind of exercise might be interesting if it were improvised. Instead, it is choreographed within an inch of its life, making it nothing more than an extremely tedious, juvenile poem.

On the stronger side of the more traditional dances on display, Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara made radical new discoveries about the use of light on the body in Mirrors and Music and Lisbeth Gruwez’s It’s going to get worse and worse, my friend makes a case for the power of seamlessness and control. Standing in a box of light, with the distorted sound of televangelist Jimmy Swaggert as her score, Gruwez translates political speech into a language of gesture. Without ever diverging from her razor-sharp movement vocabulary, Gruwez’s abstract figure transforms in the mind: from the televangelist, to a fascist dictator, to an American politician, to the tractable masses, to the very structure of language itself. The mind is free to wander wildly when something so specific and rigorous and repetitive is happening in front of it.

The highlight of the festival, though, was one of the American Realness pieces (though it was originally created decades ago, when “realness” was still the province of a subculture). In 1986, choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, writer Dennis Cooper, and musician Chris Cochrane collaborated on Them, a small rager of a piece about boys. Boys who love boys, and hate them. Boys who die. From AIDS, but also from other things. Cooper (now a much older man) delivers his prose without much affect: the simple recitation of love affairs, of friends’ deaths, of a childhood memory of two men embracing (the kind of memory you spend your entire adult erotic life chasing in vain), quickly sink the room into a kind of subterranean loneliness. The effect is heightened by Joe Levasseur’s lighting design, which keeps the stage black, except for a spot on Cooper when he’s speaking, Cochrane when he’s playing his discordant electric guitar, and the dancers, when they appear, as out of a memory. Houston-Jones, a student of contact improv famous for breaking all of its rules, choreographed the piece as a set of scored improvisations. This means there is a liveness, a danger, a “realness” to each of the many duets. The six young men who appeared in Berlin, all in sneakers and street clothes, threw their bodies around and into each other with such reckless abandon, you could feel the piece in your chest.

This is not to say that Houston-Jones eschews stagecraft. In fact, it is no small part of his genius. In one section of Them, one dancer beats the hell out of a mattress with a wooden bat, while two other dancers kneel and face upstage, holding their shirts up over the heads. In another, a dancer performs a duet with the full carcass of a goat. These are bold, theatrical choices. What keeps them from being maudlin, though, is that it’s not acting. The dancers have a task to perform (unlike in Judson, though, the task is highly referential and emotionally loaded) – but they’re not playing at it, they’re doing it. The goat might be a symbol, but for the dancer wrestling with it, trying to get his head up into its chest cavity, it’s a dead animal. It’s real.